Manchester City are not ready to put a date on Sergio Aguero's return to action, yet Pep Guardiola expects the club's record goalscorer to "help us in the decisive moments" this season.

Aguero underwent meniscus surgery last June and then saw a hamstring injury hamper his initial comeback in October.

These issues have limited the 32-year-old to just nine appearances in all competitions this season, which have yielded two goals.

Aguero also had to self-isolate earlier in January when he was set for an outing in the FA Cup and last week revealed he had tested positive for coronavirus.

Into the final six months of his City contract, Guardiola is keen to have Aguero back available, although he detailed how the striker was laid low by the effects of COVID-19.

"The important thing is when we text him during the first three, four days, he struggled, he felt so tired, but today he sent a message to the backroom staff to say he feels much better," Guardiola said ahead of Tuesday's trip to West Brom.

"Now he needs to test negative and abide by the protocols, and then start to come back here and move and see how he feels, day by day.

"I cannot tell you [when he will be back], I don't know how he will react in the first days when we start to train."

There have been only three starts for Aguero this term, with his pitch time a meagre 260 minutes overall.

The Argentina international has scored with both of his shots in the Champions League but failed to register in the Premier League, having four efforts across five outings and passing up a big chance with his only shot on target against Newcastle United.

A contract extension remains on the agenda, though, and Guardiola sees Aguero rediscovering the scoring touch that has so far brought 256 goals in 316 games for City, netting with 19 per cent of his attempts.

"I don't know when he is coming back, February or March, but I'm so optimistic that he will give us until the end of the season some good, good months," Guardiola said. "I'm so optimistic.

"He is going to help us in the decisive moments, to give us the goals and the difference that we need. I'm so confident it's going to happen."

In 2018-19, as Vincent Kompany entered the final months of his contract, the former City captain put long-term injury troubles behind him to play a key role in their most recent title success.

Guardiola was asked if the plan was for Aguero to have a similar impact and replied: "Hopefully. Hopefully it's going to happen.

"But at the same time, Vincent had an incredible quality; after being two months injured in the gym, he can go out and play one training session and play incredibly well.

"Sergio doesn't know if he has this quality to immediately go out and do it. He needs the special sharpness and the first steps for this quality to score a goal, but it depends on him.

"At the end, we'll see him in the training session and on the pitch and it's easy to realise if he's fit or not.

"But hopefully he can help us with the special quality he has. That's why he is one of the best strikers ever - not just in England, all the time in football history."

Pep Guardiola offered his sympathy to sacked Chelsea head coach Frank Lampard but recognised managers have to win to keep their jobs in the Premier League.

Blues playing great Lampard was dismissed on Monday following a run of just two victories in eight league matches, leaving Chelsea in ninth and 11 points off the top.

A club statement described "a very difficult decision", but owner Roman Abramovich is now set to turn to Thomas Tuchel, who was fired by Paris Saint-Germain last month.

Lampard averaged an underwhelming 1.67 points per game during his tenure and Manchester City counterpart Guardiola knows more is expected.

"Young and old managers, here you have to win," Guardiola said. "When the people talk about projects and ideas, they don't exist. You have to win; if not, you will be sacked.

"Respect for Chelsea, huge hug for Frank. Hopefully I can see him soon; when the lockdown will be over, I can go to a restaurant to see him again."

Asked for his assessment of Lampard's work, Guardiola reiterated: "It depends on the results.

"The way we play, the philosophy, the project... you have to get results. If you don't, you will be replaced by another manager."

But the City boss does wish coaches were given more time - from the media as well as clubs.

"All the managers, we need this," he said. "I'm not judging the decision from Chelsea ,I am not there. Respect in every decision, it has to be this way.

"But sometimes the journalists ask the club to be patient when the journalists don't have patience. We drop one game and we should sack all the managers?

"We try to win as much as possible, but it doesn't happen if you don't have the directors, the board, the owners and CEOs in the same line and you know exactly what the target is.

"Every manager needs time to do what you believe or make the players feel that it doesn't matter what happens, we believe in this, in this idea.

"And that is exceptional; it only happens in a few places around the world because the board, owners, CEOs want results immediately, quick, quick, quick.

"Winning the Premier League in November is better than January and winning in January is better than May. But this doesn't happen.

"It's difficult to talk about the projects in years, because in one month you can drop everything you built. The opponents also have good players, managers, too; you are always at risk to be out."

Guardiola finds himself in a relatively comfortable position at City, though, after a run of 10 straight victories in all competitions eased early-season pressure.

West Brom, up next on Tuesday, were the last team to stop City winning, but Guardiola is not interested in reflecting on how they turned their season around following that 1-1 draw.

"It's difficult to say," he said. "We won the next game in Southampton, one of the turning points. In that moment, Southampton were in incredible form.

"The process was we start to play better, more confident. We saw we were far away from the top of the league, then we get closer, the team eats better, trains better, we get results, successive wins.

"I know always you ask me about the past; what happened happened. I'm not a big fan of this. The next one is always important, like we have done in recent weeks."

Indeed, if City win the next one they will top the table for the first time this season - the ninth different team to reach the summit this term - with rivals Manchester United not in action until Wednesday.

"The leader is United - they are top of the league," Guardiola said. "We'll have all the games, the same games all together, we will see.

"But now we aren't top of the league. The distance is so narrow, but I don't see the table much; I didn't watch it when we were 12th, now it's the same. My focus after Cheltenham is West Bromwich."

Frank Lampard's appointment as Chelsea head coach was widely heralded by the club's fanbase, who were desperate for a returning hero to succeed in the dugout.

Just 18 months later and Lampard – the club's record all-time leading goalscorer who won 11 major honours at Stamford Bridge – has been sacked.

The Blues have proven in the past there is little time for sentimentality or to dwell on past successes and not even a player with the stature Lampard holds at the club has been granted extra time.

Lampard's first season in charge brought a top-four finish and an FA Cup final but a run of just two wins in eight league matches saw Chelsea wield the axe with the team ninth and 11 points off top.

A huge close-season recruitment drive that saw the likes of Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Hakim Ziyech and Ben Chilwell arrive perhaps gave the Blues hierarchy itchy feet and brought about the end for Lampard.

With that in mind, we have looked at some hits and misses when players have returned to a club as boss.

HITS

Pep Guardiola

After leaving Barcelona as a player in 2001, Guardiola returned as the Barca B boss in 2007 before being promoted to head coach of the first team a year later. Over four years in charge at Camp Nou he led the Blaugrana to 14 trophies, including three LaLiga titles and two Champions League crowns. Success has continued to come Guardiola's way with Bayern Munich and Manchester City.

Zinedine Zidane

World Cup winner Zidane was part of Real Madrid's 'Galacticos' in the early 2000s and he finished his playing career at the Santiago Bernabeu. Like Guardiola, he returned to oversee the second team before stepping up to the top job after the departure of Rafael Benitez in January 2016. Zidane went on to win an unprecedented three successive Champions League titles with Madrid before stepping down in May 2018, only to return 10 months later. He has already won LaLiga and the Supercopa de Espana in his second stint, though a slump this term has left his long-term future shrouded in doubt.

Antonio Conte

In 13 seasons as a player for Juventus, Conte won almost everything there is to win – five league titles, the Coppa Italia, the Champions League and the UEFA Cup. He moved into management two years after retiring and worked his way back to Juve after spells with Arezzo, Bari, Atalanta and Siena. Juve won three straight Scudetti under Conte – the start of their ongoing dominance – before he accepted the Italy job in 2014. Conte is now battling to end the Bianconeri's domestic dominance as head coach of Inter.

Roberto Di Matteo

Di Matteo accepted the top job at Chelsea in 2012, having previously been assistant to Andre Villas-Boas. Di Matteo – who won the FA Cup twice with the Blues as a player – went on to lift two trophies as Chelsea boss, including their first Champions League title with a penalty shoot-out win over Bayern, but he was discarded early in the following season.

MISSES

Alan Shearer

Record Premier League goalscorer, Newcastle United legend and lethal England striker – Shearer's playing career was full of success. When he retired in 2006, Shearer moved into television as a pundit, but when the Magpies came calling in 2009 he stepped in to try to save them from relegation. Sadly for Shearer he was unsuccessful, his eight-game reign ending in Newcastle slipping out of the top flight after a 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa on the final day.

Filippo Inzaghi

Employing former players as head coaches had previously worked well for Milan – Fabio Capello and Carlo Ancelotti proving particularly successful. When the Rossoneri turned to Inzaghi in 2014 after Clarence Seedorf's brief tenure, the move was therefore no surprise. However, the former striker – who won eight major trophies at the club in his playing days – flopped, winning just 14 of his 40 matches in charge as Milan finished 10th, their worst league position in 17 years.

Thierry Henry

Henry made his name at Monaco after breaking into the first team in 1994, the forward going on to become a world champion and a Premier League icon with Arsenal. After a period as youth coach with the Gunners, Henry was named as Belgium boss Roberto Martinez's assistant. Permanent roles with Bordeaux and Aston Villa were mooted, but in October 2018 Henry chose Monaco. He lasted just three months, losing 11 of his 20 matches in charge across all competitions before being replaced by Leonardo Jardim, the man he had succeeded.

Juan Jose Lopez

One of the most decorated players in River Plate history, having won seven league titles in an 11-year spell, Lopez was a popular appointment after making a strong impact in his second period as caretaker manager in 2010. However, he subsequently presided over a poor 2011 Clausura campaign, forcing River into a relegation play-off against Belgrano, who won 3-1 on aggregate. It was the first time River dropped out of the top tier, sparking riots which left many people injured.

JURY'S OUT

Mikel Arteta

Arteta served Arsenal with distinction as a player between 2011 and 2016, captaining the club and winning the FA Cup twice. Success in football's oldest cup competition followed last term, with Arteta having replaced Unai Emery in December 2019. After finishing eighth, Arsenal defeated Liverpool on penalties to win the Community Shield but eight defeats from 19 league games in this campaign have left Arsenal 11th and 13 points off top spot.

Andrea Pirlo

Lampard's opportunity at Chelsea arrived when Maurizio Sarri departed for Juventus, but his stint in charge at the Bianconeri lasted just one season despite winning the Serie A title. Pirlo won four Scudetti, the Supercoppa Italiana twice and the Coppa Italia during a four-year stint as a player in Turin and was appointed head coach just a week after being installed as Under-23 boss. So far it has been a mixed bag in Juve's hunt for a 10th straight title, with six draws and two defeats in 18 matches leaving them seven points back of league leaders Milan – albeit they do have a game in hand. Pirlo also collected a first trophy courtesy of victory over Napoli in the Supercoppa Italiana last week.

Pep Guardiola has seemingly accepted that Eric Garcia will leave Manchester City and return to boyhood club Barcelona.

Garcia left Barca's La Masia academy to join City in 2017 and was handed his senior debut in the following year's EFL Cup quarter-final against Leicester City.

The defender made 20 appearances in all competitions last season but neglected to sign a contract extension, as rumours of Barcelona's interest first surfaced.

Garcia, 20, has had his appearances restricted this time around by injury and a positive coronavirus test, although not before making an international breakthrough with Spain.

Barcelona's ongoing presidential elections have featured a regular focus upon the youngster, with candidates debating whether he should be bought this month or signed for free when his City contract runs down.

Sunday's 3-1 FA Cup win at Cheltenham Town was Garcia's first start since the beginning of December and Guardiola, who previously stated he wanted to "seduce" the player into signing a fresh deal, now believes his City career is ticking down.

"I don't think so," he replied when asked whether a new contract was possible for the centre-back.

"I'm pretty sure he'll leave at the end of the season.

"Now, in this transfer window, will depend on the clubs."

City were behind heading into the closing stages at Whaddon Road, before strikes from Phil Foden, Gabriel Jesus and Ferran Torres spared them an FA Cup humiliation of historic proportions.

A fifth-round trip to Championship side Swansea City awaits for the EFL Cup finalists, who are two points behind Premier League leaders Manchester United with a game in hand and resume their Champions League campaign against Borussia Monchengladbach next month.

Despite being favourably placed on all fronts, Guardiola baulked at talk of a quadruple bid to usurp the unprecedented domestic treble his team won in 2018-19.

"The target is 'Big Sam', West Bromwich. This is our target," he replied, with City's next Premier League game at the Hawthorns against Sam Allardyce's West Brom.

"The [quadruple] is a fairytale and 99.9 per cent has never been accomplished. My advice is don't do these questions to the managers, it's unrealistic."

Pep Guardiola praised the personality Phil Foden gave to Manchester City as they came from behind to beat Cheltenham Town 3-1 in the FA Cup, but insisted he does not have to fill Kevin De Bruyne's shoes.

Foden was instrumental as City avoided a huge shock in the fourth round on Saturday, which looked on the cards when Alfie May prodded fourth-tier Cheltenham ahead.

But the England international equalised by turning home at the far post nine minutes from time before Gabriel Jesus and Ferran Torres sealed progression to the fifth round.

City could have been out of sight by the time May put Cheltenham in front, with Guardiola's men wasteful in front of goal.

Foden played five key passes, with the fact none resulted in an assist indicative of the poor finishing displayed by City.

With De Bruyne out for up to six weeks with a hamstring injury, Guardiola was asked in his post-match media conference if Foden can help fill the void.

"Phil has to be Phil, Phil does not have to be Kevin De Bruyne," he replied. 

"Phil has to do what he is doing in terms of the bad moments when we were losing, the personality that he gave to the game.

"Phil can play in the middle, can play winger, can play in a false nine position up front. He's playing really well, again in the right moment he scored a goal."

Joao Cancelo played the cross for Foden's equaliser after coming off the bench, while fellow substitute Ilkay Gundogan pulled the ball back for Torres to tap in City's third.

Asked to explain their introductions, Guardiola said: "When you make a change you try to look for something.

"The young two players [Taylor Harwood-Bellis and Tommy Doyle] played really well but the quality of Gundogan and Joao in the final third was so important.

"Gundogan has the sense to score and with Phil and Riyad [Mahrez] in the final third we had the quality for the final pass and dribble and that's why they came in."

Manchester City will be without influential midfielder Kevin De Bruyne for between four to six weeks, manager Pep Guardiola has confirmed.

De Bruyne, the reigning PFA players' player of the year, has been in magnificent form again for City this season, scoring three goals and supplying 10 assists in the Premier League.

Guardiola's side are on a six-match winning run in the league, a streak that leaves them well placed in the title race - two points behind leaders Manchester United with a game in hand.

But De Bruyne was forced off after an hour of Wednesday's hard-fought 2-0 win over Aston Villa and, speaking ahead of Saturday's FA Cup trip to League Two Cheltenham Town, Guardiola outlined the extent of the Belgium international's hamstring injury.

"Kevin, like the doctor said today after a scan yesterday, will be between four and six weeks out," he said.

There was better news for right-back Kyle Walker, who is expected to return after the weekend having sustained a blow to the hip in the Villa game, but attention understandably fell upon De Bruyne, who will now miss a potentially crunch trip to take on faltering champions Liverpool at Anfield on February 7.

The playmaker faces a race to be fit for the first leg of City's Champions League last-16 match against Borussia Monchengladbach on February 24, and Guardiola rued his injury as a consequence of a congested fixture schedule.

Not for the first time this season, Guardiola took aim at the Premier League vote that elected not to increase the number of substitutions allowed during games from three to five - a move at odds with other major competitions in Europe.

"It is [a huge blow] but we have to move forward," Guardiola said.

"He has an important part of the season out and we have to find a solution. Everyone is struggling in the situation we are living and we have to adapt.

"When you compete in all the competitions it is important to have all the players healthy, but this is impossible.

"There are injuries at all the clubs. We knew it was going to happen, we tried to avoid it, we had more medical treatment than ever, more nutritionists than ever, we try to masseur as much as possible but they are human beings.

"This amount of competitions, at the end the bodies of the players says 'enough'.

"When we demand five subs, it's for this reason. Why can we do it [have five substitutes] in the FA Cup but the Premier League we cannot?

"The Premier League voted, but if they want to protect the players… I'm not saying because it's Kevin, it's many. More than ever.

"It’s too many games, too many competitions and, in the end, the players suffer. You want to play without Kevin De Bruyne for five, six weeks? Okay, the spectators will miss an incredibly top player, like in other teams. But it is what it is."

Manchester City will be without influential midfielder Kevin De Bruyne for between four to six weeks, manager Pep Guardiola has confirmed.

Sergio Aguero has confirmed he is self-isolating after returning a positive test for coronavirus.

The Manchester City striker has missed four straight games after coming into contact with another person who had contracted COVID-19.

Aguero announced his result on Twitter and it is not known when he will be free to return to training.

"After a close contact, I've been self-isolating and the latest test I took was positive for COVID 19," Aguero wrote.

"I had some symptoms and I'm following doctor's orders for recovery. Take care, everyone."

Aguero has played in just five Premier League games and nine matches in all competitions in a stop-start campaign.

Gabriel Jesus, Kevin De Bruyne and Ferran Torres have all been utilised as a central attacking option at times this term.

City are unbeaten in their past 16 matches in all competitions and are just two points off leaders Manchester United in the Premier League with a game in a hand.

Pep Guardiola's men face Cheltenham Town in the FA Cup this weekend and also have league matches with West Brom and Sheffield United within the next 10 days.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola believes Kevin De Bruyne may have suffered a muscular injury in the 2-0 win over Aston Villa, though he is waiting on further updates.

De Bruyne hobbled off in the second half as City beat Villa on Wednesday to move top of the Premier League table.

City star De Bruyne was replaced approaching the hour mark before Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan scored during the final 11 minutes at home to Villa, the former in controversial circumstances.

Kyle Walker also succumbed to injury after just 28 minutes, and Guardiola was asked about the pair.

"First, I didn't speak to the doctor," he said.

"Kyle asked to be out because something happened – hopefully it was just a kick.

"Kevin put his hand on his leg. Maybe it will be something muscular. But what do you expect? It's normal, sometimes these things happen with these kind of games."

City are now unbeaten in 16 games across all competitions after defeating a Villa side whose previous top-flight outing was a 2-1 loss to Manchester United 19 days earlier, having suffered a coronavirus outbreak.  

Silva broke the deadlock in the 79th minute amid strong claims for offside against Rodri as Villa boss Dean Smith was sent off for his protests, while Gundogan's late penalty sealed the win.

"I didn't watch the image on TV, I know they complained on the touchline," Guardiola said when discussing Silva's contentious goal.

"And VAR is there. So there are many challenges, with long balls when the player is offside, and you go backwards, the central defenders, you clear the ball, central defender for themselves, the counter attack.

"But VAR was there. If it was offside, the goal would have been disallowed, but honestly I didn't watch it, and I understand they complained about this action. In general, the game we played was outstanding."

City have kept 10 clean sheets in their 18 Premier League games this season – only in 1976-77 (17 games) have they reached that figure in fewer fixtures in their league history.

After a difficult start to the season, his side are firmly back in the mix, and Guardiola added: "There are many, many teams, but if you ask me for my opinion, still have one game left to finish the first round, so the rise in the table is good because we are there.

"When we lost against Tottenham, we were 12th in the table, but then we lost just two games and the most important thing, is the fact that we are back since Newcastle game, playing the game we have to play to be contenders. Everyone wants to win, wants to be champions but you have to show why you are champions.

"Today, I had the feeling that we controlled many aspects, we had the right tempo of the game, we concede few, create a lot. We have to be more clinical in the final third, especially in the eight yard box and penalty spot but we'll improve."

Pep Guardiola has ruled out Manchester City delving into the transfer market with Sergio Aguero to again be absent when they host Aston Villa on Wednesday.

Aguero has made just five Premier League appearances this season and has missed City's past three games in all competitions while in self-isolation despite testing negative for COVID-19.

Guardiola has used Gabriel Jesus, Kevin De Bruyne and Ferran Torres in the central attacking role during the Argentina international's absence but is not interested in bringing in further options.

The City boss simply replied "no" when asked if the club could look to bolster their options in January after he confirmed Aguero would not return to face Villa.

"He is not ready for tomorrow. He is still isolating," Guardiola said at a news conference on Tuesday.

"We need Aguero, we miss him. The numbers speak for themselves. He's the best striker in our history.

"He can win games by himself and for a long time he has not been with us, but we have not sat here complaining. We moved forward with the players that we have and found alternatives."

Aymeric Laporte has not been part of a matchday squad for City since December 26 but Guardiola confirmed he is nearing a return from a thigh injury.

However, with Ruben Dias and John Stones having developed an incredible centre-back partnership, the City boss warned Laporte it will not be easy for him to regain his spot.

"He is at the last step. He is not ready for tomorrow, but he is training with us. Yesterday was the first one, today was the second," said Guardiola.

"Hopefully [back to face Cheltenham Town on Saturday]. That would be good news. We need him. We cannot play with just Stones and Ruben. We need Nathan [Ake], we need Eric [Garcia], we need Laporte.

"It depends on him [whether he can get into the starting line-up]. The quality is there so if he is in top form and his mind is open he is the best left-sided centre-back.

"He has special qualities on the ball. He has to be focused to come back as best as possible and he will have the minutes. Being in the team or not depends on the performance of everyone."

In the eight Premier League games Stones and Dias have started together, City have dropped just two points and conceded a single goal.

In the nine matches where either one of them has not started, they have conceded 12 at an average of 1.3 per game.

No Premier League defender has been involved in more clean sheets (eight) or has a superior passing accuracy (93.4 per cent) than Dias, whose 78.3 successful passes per 90 minutes are only bettered by Thiago Silva (83.8).

On Dias, Guardiola said: "We knew his quality on the pitch, we knew a bit his personality but we have been impressed at the consistency, being ready mentally and physically to play every three days.

"You always expect the best but we are more than delighted with what he has given to the team.

"[His impact] has been massive, not just with John. He has the ability to live every single action, always concentrated on what he has to do and helping his team-mates. It is not easy to find that in someone who is 23 years old."

Pep Guardiola is 50 and who would begrudge Manchester City's remarkable manager a quiet celebration?

The likelihood is that Guardiola will instead be picking the pieces out of Sunday's clash with Crystal Palace and planning for Wednesday's game against Aston Villa.

Guardiola the player was a diligent servant as a defensive midfielder for Barcelona and Spain, albeit rarely the player who would light up a match.

Yet as a coach his teams have had maverick tendencies, as well as being clinical and merciless at times, as his medal collection shows.

To mark Guardiola's 'big 5-0', now is a timely moment to revisit some of the finest 5-0 wins from his coaching career.

Barcelona 5-0 Real Madrid (November 29, 2010)

Barca's 8-0 win at Almeria nine days earlier had contained a Lionel Messi hat-trick, but the Argentinian could not find the target when Jose Mourinho brought Madrid to Camp Nou.

Not to worry, for he was outstanding in a mesmerising Barcelona display, an iconic moment of the Guardiola era.

Messi ran Madrid ragged but left the scoring to others, setting up David Villa for the third and fourth goals, with Xavi, Pedro and the little-remembered Jeffren condemning Mourinho, Cristiano Ronaldo and co to a ruthless assailing in Catalonia.

"We are proud," said Guardiola, on the way to a LaLiga and Champions League double, "because the world has seen us play the way we like to play."

Barcelona 5-0 Atletico Madrid (September 24, 2011)

Guardiola's last season with Barca ultimately ended without LaLiga glory but it was a campaign that produced a statement victory over an Atletico Madrid team containing Thibaut Courtois, Diego Godin and Radamel Falcao.

Barca were rampant at Camp Nou, with a David Villa strike and Miranda's own goal putting them two up inside 15 minutes before Messi scored a quite magnificent hat-trick, all three goals containing fine dribbles and sublime link-up play.

Perhaps most significantly for the Spanish football landscape, the result hurried along the sacking of Atletico boss Gregorio Manzano, who, under three months later, would be replaced by a certain Diego Simeone.

Bayern 5-0 Eintracht Frankfurt (February 2, 2014)

Bayern Munich stormed to the Bundesliga title in Guardiola's first season, losing just twice and seeing off nearest challengers Borussia Dortmund by an astonishing 19 points.

They romped to four separate 5-0 wins over the course of that season, including a magnificent success against Eintracht Frankfurt in February, by which point the title was all but won.

Mario Gotze swept in with a wonderful strike after 12 minutes to set the tone, with further goals coming from Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, Dante and Mario Mandzukic.

They thrashed Hamburg 5-0 just 10 days later en route to the second of eight consecutive league titles, a run which remains active.

Steaua Bucharest 0-5 Manchester City (August 16, 2016)

The Guardiola era had begun sketchily with a 2-1 home win over Sunderland three days earlier, City needing a late Paddy McNair own goal to snatch the Premier League points.

But by goodness, this was more like the fare that was expected under the new boss, City rampant in a Champions League play-off in Romania as Sergio Aguero scored his eighth hat-trick for the club, as well as missing two penalties, with David Silva and Nolito also on target.

They had 24 shots and 70.5 per cent of possession in a frightening tease of what was to come.

Manchester City 5-0 Liverpool (September 9, 2017)

Guardiola had finished his first season at City empty-handed, but this devastating performance signalled it would be a different story in 2017-18.

New recruits Ederson, Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy all started, and City emphatically showed they were better set up for a title push than the Liverpool team Jurgen Klopp was steadily shaping into something special.

Liverpool's Sadio Mane was sent off before half-time for a high challenge that injured goalkeeper Ederson, with City already ahead by that stage thanks to Aguero.

Gabriel Jesus then scored twice, as did Leroy Sane, and City put on a show early in their record-setting 100-point campaign. Liverpool would have their revenge with a 4-3 Anfield win in January, but the title was all but wrapped up by then.

Manchester City 5-0 Burnley (all the time)

Every day must feel like a birthday when Burnley come to town, given Guardiola's team have torched the Clarets 5-0 in their last four meetings at the Etihad Stadium.

Of course it was not always this way: City grafted for a 2-1 home win over Burnley when Fernandinho was sent off when the teams first met at Eastlands in Guardiola's debut season in England.

But lately it has been customary for Burnley to be rolled over, and Riyad Mahrez helped himself to a hat-trick in the most recent encounter, in November.

Guardiola said afterwards that such goal gluts are "not important; the important thing is winning games". You suspect, however, he rather enjoys such days. Burnley, rather less so.

John Stones "deserves the best", according to Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.

Stones scored twice – his first Premier League goals for City – and put in an accomplished display at the back in a 4-0 demolition of Crystal Palace on Sunday.

Alongside Ruben Dias, Stones has been in imperious form, and from the 10 games the pair have started together in all competitions, City have claimed nine wins and one draw, conceding just one goal.

Indeed, with Stones and Dias proving their worth, Aymeric Laporte, a star performer in recent seasons, has been limited to four league appearances this term.

Injuries and losses of form have marred Stones' time at City, and the former Everton centre-back had lost his place in the England squad after making just 16 top-flight appearances last season.

However, despite talk of a move away, Stones stayed put to turn his form around, much to the delight of Guardiola, whose side are up to second, two points behind Manchester United.

"If it's one guy who deserves the best, it's John. He struggled a lot but he is a fantastic human being, his parents must be so proud," Guardiola told a news conference.

"He had personal problems and injuries in the past but at the moment he is settled well. Confidence is everything and he is confident for himself.

"Managers cannot give confidence but he started playing alongside Ruben and they play really well."

STONES' GAME – BY THE NUMBERS

Stones scored from both of his attempts. While his opener was a fine header from Kevin De Bruyne's exquisite cross, his second – which came after Ilkay Gundogan had doubled City's lead in delightful fashion – was a predatory finish after Dias' header was saved.

The former Barnsley defender also topped City's distribution metrics, completing 112 out of 117 attempted passes (a success rate of 95.7 per cent) – 54 of these came in Palace's half.

With 120 touches, Stones tallied up more than any other player, four ahead of Fernandinho, while he won one of his two aerial duels. In this regard, his partnership with Dias proved particularly fruitful, with the Portugal international winning three of four aerial battles.

Stones did not have to make a single tackle, with Dias again doing the dirty work in that respect, though he did gain possession six times, behind only Fernandinho (seven) and Palace's Andros Townsend (12).

DE BRUYNE AND GUNDOGAN LIGHT UP

Sharing the limelight with Stones were midfielders De Bruyne and Gundogan, who flanked Fernandinho in a 4-3-3.

De Bruyne created a game-high three chances, including the assist for Stones' opener – the Belgium playmaker's 100th in all competitions for City, with the 29-year-old creating 32 more goals than any other Premier League player since making his debut for the club in 2015.

"What can I say? The managers can help many things but one thing is the talent up front," Guardiola said of De Bruyne.

"Managers are incredibly fortunate or lucky to be in charge with this kind of player because it makes your life easier."

Not to be outdone, Gundogan was equally as sharp. The Germany international boasted the highest pass completion rate in Palace's half (96.6 per cent) of any City player with at least 10 such passes, and scored a sensational goal to put the hosts 2-0 up, with Raheem Sterling's first career goal directly from a free-kick rounding things off late on after Stones had doubled his tally.

Asked if Gundogan was playing the best football of his City career, Guardiola said: "Ilkay, the year when we won the second title when we won 14 games in a row [2018-19], he played as a holding midfielder because Fernandinho was injured and he was incredible.

"I thought it would not be possible without his cleverness and vision. I knew him when he played at Borussia Dortmund with [Jurgen] Klopp that when he plays close to the box he has a sense of goal.

"It is not easy to find a player that can play as a holding midfielder and as a number 10."

Gundogan has scored four goals in his past six league matches – as many as he had netted in his previous 55 games in the competition.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, PEP

Guardiola turns 50 on Monday and, though he thanked his players for an early birthday present, he will now be focused on Wednesday's scheduled match against Aston Villa, who have not played in the Premier League since January 1 due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

"Thank you for the players, it was a nice present. It's good," Guardiola said of being second in the standings.

"We fought a lot to be up there like many clubs and we will have to fight a lot to still be there. It is a weird season, everyone can beat everyone, it is difficult every game but I am happy for the players for another good performance and for the three points."

John Stones scored twice as Manchester City moved into second place in the Premier League by sweeping aside Crystal Palace 4-0 at the Etihad Stadium.

With league leaders Manchester United and defending champions Liverpool sharing the spoils in a goalless stalemate at Anfield, City took full advantage to move within two points of first place.

On top of another top-class defensive display alongside Ruben Dias, Stones broke the deadlock 26 minutes in with his first league goal for City – Kevin De Bruyne the creator with a sensational cross to bring up his 100th assist for the club.

Ilkay Gundogan doubled the lead early in the second half prior to Stones celebrating an unlikely second, and a classy finish from Raheem Sterling wrapped up a fifth successive league win for Pep Guardiola's ever-improving City.

In search of his milestone moment, De Bruyne attempted to tee up Sterling with a quick exchange of passes in the 26th minute, when the Belgian might have been better served to shoot.

Yet his 100th assist did not take long to arrive. His initial poor corner was cleared, but De Bruyne was found by Sterling and, with the outside of his right foot, placed a wonderful cross onto the head of Stones, who turned in his first league goal since he scored for Everton in April 2015.

Gabriel Jesus was unable to beat Vicente Guaita after latching onto Gundogan's flick-on, but the Germany midfielder took matters into his own hands 11 minutes after the restart, robbing Andros Townsend on the edge of Palace's box and dispatching a fantastic finish into the top-right corner.

Jordan Ayew mustered Palace's second shot soon after, though it was blocked by Dias, who then played a key part in City's third.

Dias' header was parried out by Guaita, but the Portuguese's defensive partner Stones was on hand to drill in his second.

Sterling had the final say, the England forward – who missed a late penalty against Brighton and Hove Albion – curling a sublime free-kick into the top corner to add further gloss to a resounding triumph.

Pep Guardiola has no interest in the outcome of Liverpool versus Manchester United, with his focus only on finding a way to defeat Crystal Palace.

Manchester City host Palace in the Premier League on Sunday, by which point champions Liverpool will have taken on United.

Guardiola was asked who he thought would come out on top in the big clash at Anfield, but swiftly made it clear there was only one fixture he was focused on.

"Crystal Palace," he replied. "It's the only thing I want - I want to beat them. The rest, honestly, I don't care. 

"The last two seasons against Crystal Palace at home we got one point. We lost and we drew. Our performance in Selhurst Park was much better than the Etihad Stadium. 

"That's what the only concern I have is - winning against Crystal Palace. 

"We will play knowing the result [between Liverpool and United], because they play earlier than us, but I don't know."

No side has kept more Premier League clean sheets this season than City (eight) and they are only four points behind leaders United with a game in hand.

Despite their fine form, Guardiola is not concerned with the two sides ahead of them in the table getting all the attention.

"I didn't talk with the players about that," added Guardiola. "Teams make confidence and make a positive for the next game they are going to play by how you performed in the last one.

"I don't think the players are more optimistic or angry or upset because the people consider us not contenders this season, or maybe United or Liverpool are better than us.

"Against Brighton [in the 1-0 win last time out] we played good. In the moments we didn't play good Brighton were brilliant. 

"It is best to visualise we are in a good moment, because when you dream you want to be top of the league, you want to be in a better position when you don't play good, you are not going to achieve it. We won't get it."

City will be eyeing an eighth straight victory in all competitions and a fifth consecutive Premier League win when they take on Palace.

Only United (11) are on a longer current unbeaten run in the Premier League than City (eight), but Guardiola does not pay attention to such sequences.

He added: "When we have had incredible runs I have never thought about how many wins or how many marathons we have to do to win something. 

"When we won 18 games in a row in the season we got 100 points, after the win in the second game we said, 'okay, let's try to win the next one'. 

"Then the next, then after that the next one. I never expect my players to win a lot of games. I want to win the next one, and the next one is Crystal Palace. 

"This is the best way. I don't care how many games we are able to win or not win in a row. Absolutely zero. 

"It is just Crystal Palace, Wilfried Zaha, Eberechi Eze, Christian Benteke, Roy Hodgson, Luka Milivojevic - this is the only way I am concerned since the day after we beat Brighton."

DE BRUYNE EYES THREE FIGURES

Kevin De Bruyne has racked up four assists in his last six appearances for City and will be looking to continue a strong individual run in matches with Palace.

The Belgium international has been involved in eight goals in 10 Premier League games against Palace (two goals and six assists) – only against Southampton (two goals, seven assists) has he been involved in more in the competition.

No Premier League player has provided more assists in all competitions than his 14 this season.

In-form De Bruyne is hoping to reach a milestone against Palace, as his next assist will put him on to 100 for the club in all competitions.

Kevin De Bruyne's gesture during the closing stages of Manchester City's Premier League game against Brighton and Hove Albion was one of selflessness towards a team-mate and friend, but also one that backfired.

De Bruyne ceded his penalty-taking duties after drawing a foul from Albion goalkeeper Robert Sanchez in stoppage time at a sodden Etihad Stadium, giving Raheem Sterling the chance to step up.

Unfortunately, the England international ballooned his attempt into the deserted North Stand, leaving Pep Guardiola's side with a few more needlessly nervy minutes to see out a 1-0 win.

A key contributor as City racked up six major trophies in the three previous campaigns under Guardiola, Sterling is yet to fully hit his stride this time around, even as his colleagues in sky blue have moved their collective level through the gears over recent weeks to sit menacingly poised in the Premier League title race.

The Brighton miss means he has scored only three goals in his past 18 appearances in all competitions, a run of four in three either side of the October international break proving to be something of a false dawn.

"He’s an incredibly important player for us," Guardiola said of Sterling ahead of Sunday's meeting with Crystal Palace, which will come as the immediate dust settles on the top-two clash between Manchester United and Liverpool at Anfield.

"Everything we have done in the past, without him would not have been possible."

True as that might be, Sterling relocating his past form would certainly benefit City in an unpredictable season of ample possibilities.

In 2019-20, Sterling enjoyed the most prolific season of his career, scoring 20 goals in the Premier League and 31 overall.

His Premier League haul outperformed an xG of 17.3, coming from 97 shots, although he was even more clinical in those terms the last time City won the Premier League in 2018-19.

In that year of a domestic treble, within 25 in all competitions, Sterling's 17 top-flight goals from 77 attempts had an xG value of 13.7.

This season, he has four Premier League goals and an xG of 3.6. His 29 shots include five unsuccessful efforts from inside the six-yard box.

Close-range misses have become an unwelcome feature in Sterling's game, most gallingly when he blazed over with the goal at his mercy during City's chastening Champions League quarter-final defeat to Lyon in August.

Before last season, the 26-year-old had never dipped below a 50 per cent conversion rate on what Opta rank as "big chances".  He was most efficient in this regard when he scored 18 of 31 (58 per cent) in 2018-19.

That percentage dropped to 39.6 in 2019-20, as he scored 23 big chances and spurned 35. This term, five scored and 13 missed means a further drop to 27.8 per cent within this smaller sample size.

Sterling's overall shot conversion of 14.3 per cent is its lowest since 11.7 per cent in Guardiola's first trophy-less season at City in 2016-17.

So, in a talent stacked squad, should he be fearing for his place? In short, no.

"He will score goals, he will make assists and he wants to help in all departments," Guardiola insisted.

"Normally wingers are not able do that but he can help us. I'm more than happy to have him here with us."

A player holding himself to the high standards Sterling does is unlikely to take any comfort in the old head-tousling adage of "he was there to miss 'em", but there is something to be said for his relentless desire to contribute to the cause, irrespective of where his individual form resides.

Guardiola certainly views him as indispensable. Sterling has played 24 games and completed 1,864 minutes this season, second only to Premier League ever-present Rodri in the City squad.

He has had more shots on target (27) and attempted (88) and completed (41) more dribbles than any other City player. In terms of overall shots (38) and assists (six) he is only bettered by Kevin De Bruyne.

Sterling has created 30 chances for others and, despite his struggles in front of goal, remains joint-second in the squad's goalscoring charts on seven alongside Ferran Torres, one shy of midweek matchwinner Phil Foden.

The former Liverpool youngster's previous goal, when he scored decisively at Southampton in December, made him the first player to reach 150 goal involvements for Guardiola's City.

And, although the Brighton game ended in personal disappointment, his introduction from the bench was his 220th appearance under Guardiola. No player has been selected more frequently by the Catalan tactician in his celebrated career, with a certain Lionel Messi second on that list.

It is that overall big picture of absolute trust and an unquenchable thirst to contribute to the wider cause that means Sterling will remain one of Guardiola's most trusted performers, even if his dry spell goes on a little longer.

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